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Judge rejects North Dakota bid to force oil lease sales on federal lands

North Dakota has pursued a legal challenge to a moratorium that President Biden's administration imposed for oil leasing on federal lands. Lease sales are slated to reopen in North Dakota in the coming months.

An oil pumping station
An oil pumping station is part of the Badlands landscape July 6, 2010, in western North Dakota.
Forum News Service file photo

BISMARCK — A judge has denied an attempt by North Dakota to force the U.S. government to hold sales for oil leases on federal lands, a lawsuit that the state pursued after President Joe Biden imposed a moratorium on such activity to address climate and environmental concerns.

The order, issued Friday, Jan. 14, by U.S. District Judge Daniel Traynor, noted that the U.S. Department of the Interior is already planning to reopen leases for oil development on federal lands in North Dakota, effectively granting the relief that the state is seeking in its legal challenge.

The ruling comes two days after Traynor, who was nominated to his post by former President Donald Trump, questioned lawyers from the North Dakota Attorney General's Office on the basis for their request in light of the plans for federal leasing to resume, and since a Louisiana judge had already ruled in favor of a group of oil and gas producing states in a similar lawsuit.

North Dakota alleged that the Department of the Interior violated its legal duties and the order of the Louisiana court by not holding sales on eligible lands last year, while federal attorneys argued that leasing was paused for a review of its compliance with a key environmental law — a disagreement that Traynor said he could not resolve without a more complete factual record.

While the judge said he was denying North Dakota's request "at this early stage" in the lawsuit, he left the door open for the state to try again if the verdict of the Louisiana case is overturned or its scope limited by an appeal.

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Traynor added that if leaders in the U.S. Department of the Interior do "not hold to their word and cancel any planned future sale," then North Dakota can bring their case back for review.

North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said in a statement that the state appreciated Traynor's desire for more information, especially considering the Interior Department's publicized plans to hold lease sales again in the first two quarters of 2022.

"We are fully prepared to hold their feet to the fire and will not hesitate to bring the matter before the Court again as the circumstances warrant," Stenehjem said.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Justice did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the judge's order Friday afternoon.

Biden stopped lease sales on federal lands with an executive order at the start of his presidency, a move that was cheered by environmental groups looking for bold action to combat climate change.

A total of 15 states have sued the Biden administration over its restrictions on federal oil leasing. Many joined a single lawsuit, while North Dakota has pursued a solo challenge.

Lease auctions were not held on federal lands in North Dakota for a year after Biden's inauguration. The state claimed in an initial filing that two canceled sales last year cost it $82 million.

The federal Bureau of Land Management, which is overseen by the Department of the Interior, has planned more than 6,800 acres in western North Dakota and eastern Montana for auction in the coming months.

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at awillis@forumcomm.com.

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